Using data to mitigate the lasting mental health impacts of COVID-19

Ensuring the health, happiness and wellbeing of university students and staff

A mental health pandemic

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), more than half of students report that their wellbeing and mental health has worsened as a result of COVID-19. On top of this, the COVID-19 UK Student survey from Save the Student asked over 2,000 students how they really felt about the pandemic, and similarly, as many as two in three said that their mental health had suffered due to coronavirus.

Much of the wider UK population has fallen victim to the lasting mental health impacts of the pandemic, but why is the student population being affected so greatly? I recently asked a colleague of mine, New Economics Foundation Associate Rosie Maguire, who explained: “As we move through the different stages of our lives, we encounter changes and challenges that evidence shows can impact our mental wellbeing. Students starting university often go through these life-change events all at the same time; moving house, navigating independent living, becoming financially (more) independent, starting a new course, making new friends etc. Combine this with doing it all in the face of a global pandemic and the unprecedented challenges that also come along as a result, and it becomes very easy to see how this segment of young people are struggling right now.”

Prioritising mental wellness for university students and staff

Student mental health and wellbeing shouldn’t just be a priority because of the pandemic. In our pre-pandemic world, undergraduate student wellbeing had already been worryingly on the decline. Last year’s Student Academic Experience Survey reported a decrease since 2016 in students on all four dimensions (life satisfaction, life worthwhile, happiness, low anxiety) compared to that of the general population aged 16–24 years.

In June 2020, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan delivered a speech about the impact of COVID-19 on the sector and mental health support for students, stating: “When the pandemic struck, my first letter to each institution specifically reminded them of their responsibility of care to students and especially in relation to student mental health. I made it clear that I expected support to be transitioned online, prioritised and bolstered where possible.”

Although certainly not misplaced, tending to the mental wellness of students is a huge responsibility for higher education institutes (HEIs) to manage effectively, whose staff (under increased pressure and unprecedented challenges) will also need considered in an inclusive mental wellness programme themselves.

The challenge of addressing mental wellness in HE

As our resilience is continually being tested by extended lockdowns, we must continue to acknowledge that the challenge of addressing mental wellness is still a blind spot for many HEIs.

So, how do you assess your mental wellness regularly? There are plenty of apps that help individuals practice mindfulness, and government-backed resources like Student Space. But without an extensive amount of raw data and understanding relating to markers of mental wellness, we have neither the means of measuring it, nor the right digital tools that can process the raw data to provide more tailored guidance that can direct people to the right resources at the right time. Ultimately, resources are great but without strategy, measurement and evaluation, who’s to say if any of it is working?

A tool to measure mental wellness

Spotting this need for simple measurement of individual mental wellness we (eQuality Solutions) recognised the synergy with our existing e-learning portal for assistive technology, Learning Labs, and began working on our own mental wellness portal, Learning Labs Plus, to be able to collect and extract this type of data.

Learning Labs Plus is a mental wellness e-learning portal focused on enabling users to measure their mental wellness across six different influences. The Six Domains of Mental Wellness™ is a unique concept, developed by eQS with the New Economics Foundation (who have previously worked with the NHS and Mind).

The Learning Labs Plus portal is designed to support individuals in gaining a greater awareness of their mental wellness, helping to break down the subject of mental wellness into manageable chunks; The Six Domains. By accessing knowledge, people can feel empowered to achieve greater positive outcomes in education and in life.

The data-driven solution for HE providers

What’s currently needed is detailed data insight into mental wellness trends of the student population. By understanding trends in student mental wellness, only then can HE professionals create effective mental wellness programmes that can be tracked and evidenced to measure progress and improvement.

Being driven by data from their own student population, HEIs would be able to respond to specific issues, which would prove far more effective than providing blanket solutions that aren’t tailored to suit anyone.

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